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[VIDEO/AUDIO] Murray to Secretary Shinseki: "This Needs to be a Wake-Up Call for the Department"

May 15 2014

During Senate hearing, Murray tells Secretary Shinseki “the standard practice at VA seems to be to hide the truth in order to look good.”

Murray: “We have come to the point where we need more than good intentions.”

VIDEO: Senator Murray’s Opening Statement 

VIDEO: Senator Murray Questions Sec. Shinseki

(Washington, D.C.)  – Today U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), a senior member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, attended a hearing to examine the state of VA health care with Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. At the hearing, Murray questioned Secretary Shinseki on recent allegations that patients died while waiting for treatment at VA hospitals, and asked him what immediate changes will be made to finally restore long-overdue accountability, transparency, and confidence in the VA system. 

Murray: Secretary Shinseki, Deputy Under Secretary for Health Bill Schoenhard told me at a hearing in 2012 that gaming is so prevalent, as soon as new directives are put out, they are torn apart to find out how to get around the requirements. Testimony from a VA mental health employee said the exact same thing. At the same hearing Linda Halliday from the IG’s office told us, ‘If we have seen scheduling practices that resulted in gaming the system to make performance metrics look better at the end of the day, over the past seven years, they need a culture change. To get that culture change, I think they really need to hold the facility directors accountable for how well the data is actually being captured.’ That was more than two years ago. The standard practice at the VA seems to be to hide the truth in order to look good.  That has got to change once and for all. And I want to know how you’re going to get your medical directors and your network leaders to tell you – whether it’s through this survey or in the future -- when they have a problem and will work with you to address it – rather than pursuing these secret lists and playing games with these wait times?

Shinseki: Senator, if there’s anything that gets me angrier than just hearing allegations, is to hear you tell me that we have folks that can’t be truthful because they think the system doesn’t allow it. (See Secretary Shinseki’s full response here.)

Excerpts from Senator Murray’s opening remarks:

“…while the Department generally offers very high quality health care and does many things as well as, or better than, the private sector—I am very frustrated to be here, once again, talking about some deeply disturbing issues and allegations. It’s extremely disappointing that the Department has repeatedly failed to address wait times for health care.” 

“Clearly this problem has gone on for far too long.   It is unfortunate that these leadership failures have dramatically shaken many veterans’ confidence in the system. Secretary Shinseki, I continue to believe that you take this seriously and want to do the right thing.  But we have come to the point where we need more than good intentions.  What we need from you now is decisive action to: restore veterans’ confidence in VA, create a culture of transparency and accountability, and to change these system-wide, years long problems.”

“This needs to be the wakeup call for the Department.  The lack of transparency and the lack of accountability is inexcusable and cannot be allowed to continue.  The practices of intimidation and of cover-ups must change – starting today.”  

Senator Murray’s full opening remarks:

“I am very glad the Chairman has called this hearing. Like most Americans, I believe that when it comes to caring for our nation’s heroes, we cannot accept anything less than excellence. The government made a promise to the men and women who answered the call of duty—and one of the most important ways we uphold that is by making sure our veterans can access the health care they need and deserve.  So while the Department generally offers very high quality health care and does many things as well as, or better than, the private sector—I am very frustrated to be here, once again, talking about some deeply disturbing issues and allegations. It’s extremely disappointing that the Department has repeatedly failed to address wait times for health care.   So I was encouraged when you announced a nation-wide review of access to care.  And I am very pleased that the President is sending one of his key advisors, Rob Nabors, to assist in overseeing and evaluating that review.  His perspective, from outside the Department, will make this review more credible and more effective. But announcing this review is just the first step.  These recent allegations are not new issues – they are deep, system-wide problems.  And they grow more concerning every day.

“When the Inspector General’s report is issued – and when the access review’s report is given – I expect the Department to take them very seriously and to take all appropriate steps to implement their recommendations. But there are also cases where the facts are in right now. There are problems we know exist.  And there is no reason for the Department to wait until the Phoenix report comes back before acting on the larger problem. The GAO reported on VA’s failures with wait times at least as far back as the year 2000.  Last Congress we did a great deal of work around wait times, particularly for mental health care.  The Inspector General looked at these problems in 2005, 2007, and again in 2012.  Each time they found schedulers around the country were not following VA policy. They also found in 2012 that VA has no reliable or accurate way of knowing if they are providing timely access to mental health care.  But now the IG recommendations are still open. And the Department still has not implemented legislation I authored to improve the situation. Clearly this problem has gone on for far too long.   It is unfortunate that these leadership failures have dramatically shaken many veterans’ confidence in the system. Secretary Shinseki, I continue to believe that you take this seriously and want to do the right thing.  But we have come to the point where we need more than good intentions.  What we need from you now is decisive action to: restore veterans’ confidence in VA, create a culture of transparency and accountability, and to change these system-wide, years long problems.

“This needs to be the wakeup call for the Department.  The lack of transparency and the lack of accountability is inexcusable and cannot be allowed to continue.  The practices of intimidation and of cover-ups must change – starting today.   Giving bonuses to hospital directors for running a system that places priority on gaming the system and keeping their numbers down, rather than provide care to veterans -- must come to an end.    But, Mr. Secretary it can’t end with just dealing with a few bad actors or putting a handful of your employees on leave. It has to go much further and lead to system-wide change.  You must lead the Department to a place where we prioritize the care of our veterans above everything else.  The culture at VA must allow people to admit where there are problems and ask for help from hospital leadership, VISN leadership, or from you.  This is the time for the Department to make real, major changes.  Because business as usual is unacceptable.”